Labor shortage continues to vex area businesses

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry reports January marked the 21st consecutive month the state has not experienced an unemployment rate increase.

Clarion County, though, bucked that trend, as its jobless rates increased over the previous month, rising 1.2 percent over December, to 5.4 percent.

But proof of the need for workers throughout the region is in the help wanted signs. The regional labor shortage may be an historic trend.

“We have seen the great resignation all over the country. People are leaving jobs and choosing to make a change and we see that in Clarion County,” said Jarred Heuer, executive director of the Clarion County Economic Development Corporation.

“Northwest Pennsylvania has had a steady declining population over several decades and that contributes directly toward the workforce,” Heuer said. “We have had younger people leaving. They are not staying here in the employ of our local businesses. COVID was a transformational event. It has, in a way, transformed how people think and behave.”

Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-63) believes the pandemic has also contributed to the labor shortage.

“COVID had something to do with that and school closing,” Oberlander said recently in Clarion. “If you can’t be sure your kids are going to be at school all day you have a hard time going to work.”

The lack of labor has cut across the economy including healthcare.

Steven Davis, Clarion Hospital president, said recently the healthcare industry has been hit hard and the trend is projected to continue.

“Through 2026 Pennsylvania will be the worst for the shortage of supplies. It is affecting every level of healthcare workers,” Davis said. “At my level we need to be creative.”

Oberlander said the state is trying to help.

“We have waived a lot of regulations. We found out the world didn’t end because we waived them. We need to look through those regulations and see which ones can be waived altogether,” Oberlander said. “The healthcare sector received most of those waivers. We need to keep some of those waivers in place.”

The labor shortage is complex.

“Everyone is talking about the labor force. Employers are looking at ways to attract new employees. For the past two years my office has been inundated with employment compensation claims. It is a broken system. People are waiting months for unemployment,” said Oberlander. “It is hard to understand how we are not getting people back to work when they are not getting unemployment.”

There is a darker side to the labor shortage.

“I think people understood there would be repercussions from being quarantined for months on end, separated from friends and families,” Oberlander said. “We are seeing a tremendous explosion in mental health issues, drug use and children and youth issues. There are not enough people to take care of any of those issues. That is a real problem. This is the tip of the iceberg.”

Oberlander believes within the next six months to one year we will see an explosion in the number of people who need that help.

“We experienced a worldwide pandemic for the first time in generations and I don’t know that everyone was as resilient to work through those issues,” said Oberlander.

Heuer said there are positive signs.

“On the flip side we are seeing people return to the rural counties,” said Heuer. “Clarion County is no different. That is in our favor. Telework is now much more conventional and now we can have people working there and living here. That is a tremendous opportunity for rural counties.

“Everything is always intertwined. There is not one particular problem or one particular solution. These trends can buck and sake us or shape us. We want to develop our identity so that people want to come here. That success tends to multiply itself.”